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Emma

Emma

by: Jane Austen

I love rereading books by listening to the audio books but I often struggle to find books narrated by women.  I don’t know why, but there are times when I strongly prefer to listen to a woman’s voice over a man’s and while I have plenty of podcasts that fit the bill, it’s harder for me to find audiobooks.  But I decided, after listening to Pride and Prejudice, that I should continue with my Austen adventure and downloaded Emma.

Emma, is, of course, a classic novel by Jane Austen. Written in Georgian-Regency times (thanks Wikipedia!), it follows the titular character through the perils of matchmaking, romance, and growing up.  My audiobook was narrated by Juliet Stevenson, who was really excellent. Her voice is elegant and has just the tiniest hint of merriment.

When I first read Emma, I was in early high school.  I only read it the once, so while I knew the plot, I really wasn’t prepared for all the comedy I’d missed the first time around.  I had to stop myself from laughing out loud more than once, and I’m sure that I walked around grinning like a fool while listening.  Austen pokes fun at her characters dryly and deservedly, though kindly.  I missed a lot my first read and I remember thinking the plot dragged a bit.  Now, when I can appreciate the subtle satire and the ridiculousness of the scenes, I didn’t think it dragged at all, even though not much happens in the story.

It’s a cohesive story and solid plot, but what I loved best are the individual scenes that can stand on their own.  My favorite scene involved two rather self-absorbed characters, one quite good-natured, engaged in a conversation where each is determinedly wresting the subject back to their favorite brag every time they speak. I was thoroughly entranced and amused the entire scene – it felt real, funny, and I could definitely think of a few people who it reminded me of!  It could have been taken from the story and read just as a scene and been just as satisfying.

Like all Austen books, some of the references and subtle pokes haven’t aged as well – a very few, but there were times when something was clearly supposed to be obvious and I had no clue what was being referenced.  And, of course, there’s a lot of subtlety and unspoken context going on in the novel, as in any Austen novel.

I will say, the ending did feel like it dragged on a bit and then, when it did end, it felt rather abrupt.  It was particularly noticeable because I was listening to it; I couldn’t start skimming over the last bit after I knew the major problems were resolved.  Austen thoroughly ties up every plot line, perhaps a tad too neatly and leaves the reader completely satisfied.  Her characters are believable and engaging. Overall, despite the more complex language, it’s a great escapism novel.

If you like things to happen in your novel, clear and straightforward writing, or a hot ‘n’ steamy romance, this, unfortunately, is probably not the book for you. If, however, you like old-fashioned and sweet stories, you love absurd but realistic humor, or you’re just looking for a book to read in a garden with a glass of wine, then I strongly encourage you to give Emma a read.

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How many books do you read at once?

The question of the moment.  Yesterday I said I was reading two awesome books – I am so very excited about them! – and I wondered if y’all read more than one book at a time?

I can share attention with multiple books – 3-5 is pretty normal – until I get about halfway through a book.  Then I tend to decide if I want to continue the book, in which case I generally put all other books down until I’m finished, or I put the book down until I want to finish it at the exclusion of others.  (I’m usually able to pick up a book again days or even months later and still remember what’s going on.) Right now, of course, I’m nearly halfway through two books and I want to give all of my attention to both! But I think I’m going to finish the shorter one first.

What about you, dear readers?  Do you read more than one book at once, or are you a purist who sticks to a strict diet of one at a time? Do you have a system for getting through books?   Let me know in the comments!

This Lullaby

by: Sarah Dessen

My best friend had this long love affair with Dessen’s books.  Though she no longer religiously reads them, when I told her Dessen had stopped by my local bookstore she of course wanted a signed copy.  I picked up Keeping the Moon for her and This Lullaby for myself.

Thematically, a number of Dessen’s stories revolve around teenagers resigned to sidekick status, learning to define themselves and leave their family’s shadows.  It’s something that most people, but especially teenagers (the target audience), can relate to; not feeling like the star of your own story can be tough to overcome.

This novel is told in first person by Remy, an 18 yr old daughter of a constantly marrying mother and a father who died when she was two.  She never met her father, a musician who left before she was born.  He died when she was two, his only hit a song dedicated to her: “This Lullaby”, which eventually turns into a classic she can’t escape.   It’s along the lines of “Beth” by Kiss, “Hate Me” by Blue October, or “Better as a Memory” by Kenny Chesney – a confession, perhaps, or an apology.  (Musically, it’s supposed to be some kind of classic rock, so I always hear the opening strains of “Beth” whenever I read the lyrics.)

I love these types of songs – the sad, dark romance; the brutal honesty; the juxtaposition between the love the singer feels and the actions they are unable to take.  And I really love that Dessen examines the other side of this; the people abandoned even as they’re loved.   It’s a brilliant premise for an excellent novel.

Remy is an odd mix of wild child and practical adult.  She takes care of her mother and the house, is planning her mother’s fifth wedding, conducting summer romances, and preparing to leave for college in the fall.   She drinks to deal with life, occasionally slips back to her party-too-hard self, and is understandably cynical.  Her brother is becoming serious with his girlfriend and her friends are having their last hoorah.

In the middle of all this, she meets Dexter, a manic pixie dream boy; a college dropout and aspiring musician, co-writer of “The Potato Song” and a hopeless romantic (similar to Augustus from The Fault in Our Stars).  I like Dexter, except that there are many times at the beginning when she’s saying “don’t eat in my car” or something similar and he, in order to save her from her own uptightness, goes ahead and does what he wants anyways.  Less than attractive.  When she’s serious, though, he does respect her refusals so clearly there’s some magic mind-reading or body language the reader isn’t privy to.

Anyway, the book is rather excellent.  Remy is caught between the mother who can’t parent and the father who wouldn’t; if she is to grow, she has to let go of her mother, of her control, and of “This Lullaby.” Her mother is a romance writer; decently famous and successful, who believes that every husband is The One.  The book is mostly about Remy’s relationships; her relationship with herself, her mother, and brother, with Dexter and her friends, with  her father, and his famous song, and with love itself.  It feels like it should be written in a flowery and romantic style, but it’s not and that strangely suits the book very well.  The book never feels overly emotional or slow on plot; indeed, Remy is not a character overflowing with emotion.

Dessen’s a fairly good writer and she’s very good at exploring relationships and capturing those moments between childhood and adulthood, when teenagers begin to deal with their parents as people and learn to mold themselves outside of the family.  This is targeted for teens, but it’s definitely one of those books that adults and preteens will enjoy – the writing and character development is excellent.  All the characters feel real – with virtues and flaws and things they just do okay at.  They’re engaging and standoffish and sometimes I like them and sometimes I don’t.  And it makes for great storytelling.

If you like novels featuring themes of self-discovery and growing up, or if you’ve ever wondered what happened to Beth, then I would highly recommend This Lullaby.  If you like books where the main character gets a big scene where they receive apologies and dole out forgiveness, or if you like tons of sappy, tearjerker moments, then, alas, this may not be the book for you.

A Confusion of Princes

by: Garth Nix

I was at my friend E’s house for the second time in two weeks and this was on her bookshelf, mocking me.  A Confusion of Princes was such a great name; I decided that I had to read it.  E graciously let me borrow it – and then I realized it was Garth Nix and I absolutely had to read it right then and there.  (Well, not literally. I went back to my place first.)

And then I read and read, and stayed up way too late, and read some more and finally finished it during my lunch break today.  It’s really absorbing!

The biggest downside is it’s a little pat – it could really have done with more pages or the promise of a sequel or something.  I feel like there was more to be explored within the realm of this story than there was.  Honestly, I at first thought it was going to be a trilogy, because so much was getting introduced without being completely and totally fleshed out and I wanted to know more.  But then there was a tidy epilogue and a very neat ending, so no. (Also, Wikipedia informs me it is a stand-alone space opera. Boo, Nix. I want more.)

Anyway, on to the story.  This is a science fiction set far in the future, when Earth is but a distant memory and 300 year old spacecraft are still considered fairly new. The society (galaxies? better part of the universe? Whatever, it’s all the same) is ruled by the Emperor and hier (20 points for the gender neutral pronoun, Nix) Imperial Mind.  The Emperor, an unknown being – hence the gender neutral pronoun – selects millions of Princes to be genetically and technically enhanced as children and raised into power.  They are the military forces, the political parties, and every twenty years one of them goes to the big throne in the sky and becomes the new Emperor.  (Yes, “hier” still make sense in this case.  Read the book; I’m not explaining.)

It’s told in first person, from Prince Khemri’s point of view.  Khemri isn’t here to save the universe or upset the status quo or enact revenge.  Khemri merely wants to be the most powerful person in the universe, the Emperor, and is an entitled, bratty asshole who will do anything to achieve his goals.  Despite all that, Khemri is likeable, if only because he is telling the story in past tense and writer Khemri knows what an ass young Khemri was.  Note, however, that Khemri isn’t ever evil; he’s just very sheltered, much in the way Marie Antoinette didn’t wish the peasants harm so much as have no clue that peasants really existed.

Khemri is the main character in the story and really the only one that’s given enough time to develop properly.   There are other characters, and they are believable, it’s just that they’re not given any time to be well-developed characters.  Now that I’m writing the review, I’m realizing how plot-driven the story is (there’s nothing I can say without giving something away! arg!).

I can say Khemri’s choices aren’t what one would expect from a science fiction novel and he isn’t really much of a hero, or even an anti-hero.  In fact, the more I think about the ending, the more I like it even though I don’t necessarily like Khemri himself. I’m conflicted, you could say. (Want to discuss? Comments are open for spoilers!)

All in all, this was a really good book.  I’m not usually big on plot-driven books but I liked this one, in part because of the quick, easy way the plot moved and partly because I did find the main character sympathetic and wanted to know what happened to him.  Nix really goes all out with the new, space-y world, so be prepared for new nouns from every corner and to have to spend a few seconds here and there putting technologies together.  He does a fantastic job of world building, however, and it wasn’t hard to keep up; I’m just not that fond of being bombarded with made-up words every five sentences.

If you like space odyssies and science fiction, I would definitely give this book a chance.  Especially if you’re looking for a different type of hero, one that chooses what could arguably be either the least or most heroic path to walk.  If you’re not a fan of Nix’s writing (do those people exist?!) or if you’re heavily into character interactions/not a huge fan of plot-driven works, then this, sadly, may not be the book for you.

Young Miles

by: Lois McMaster Bujold

Young Miles is this month’s book club pick and to be honest, I’m just not that into it.  I’m nearly 250 pages in and I have no inclination to finish, really.  I keep on trying to, because book club, but as soon as I pick it up, my mind starts wandering and either I start considering a nap or I think of something else that I desperately need to do, like dishes.  I need your opinion – should I finish reading it or do you think that we have incompatible differences? Read on, readers, and let me know what you think in the comments!

The volume I have is apparently 2 novellas and a short story, so there’s approximately 800 pages total.  (Also, I’m nearly 250 pages into the first novella and it doesn’t seem to be anywhere near a conclusion, so I’m saying it’s at least 1 novel and 2 additional stories of undetermined type.)

As for why I’m not interested…well, firstly, there’s one female character so far and she’s young, spirited, over-protected, and out on her first adventure.  (She’s basically Jasmine from “Aladdin” but without being bad ass enough to strike out on her own.) Her only redeeming value is she can fight – except the two most prominent male characters spend all their time worrying about her even though it’s made clear she’s a very good fighter. While I don’t need every story I read to feature a female lead, I have a hard time staying involved if all the important characters are male.  (And I don’t mean strong like bad ass mofo here to save the day, just that they need to have a personality and be there for a reason besides love interest! or token female! or damsel in distress!)

Secondly, the characters doesn’t feel that well-developed.  They’re not badly developed, it’s just that they’re blandly predictable.  Miles is the unfortunately physically disadvantaged guy who’s wicked smart and cunning and will end up saving the day using only his brains and force of character! Even though everything was stacked against him!  (Except for the fact that he was born in a position of power and money and given the best of education… does she go into that?)

His bodyguard is an ice-cold soldier with a deep dark secret (that probably drives his sense of honor and obligation)! Also, he’s a sadistic sociopath? Or maybe just a sadist… A nice twist but it doesn’t feel like it’s going anywhere character wise, as he’s unlikely to use his sadistic torturing abilities against anybody but the bad guy.  I can see tension building between him and Miles – they’ve already had one stand-off on torturing enemies – but I feel like that’s the only tension his soullessness will bring to the book.

I could go on, but the rest of the characters are much less well-developed and really aren’t worth the time.  I did find Tung, an arrogant but brilliant military historian fairly interesting; Lois threw some unexpected twists in with his personality that I really liked.

And I’m just not very into her world-building.  It’s okay but several things I’m just not getting quick enough, so scenes only make sense after the fact, like when I was confused about how they were having a spaceship battle at the refinery. It was only after the battle that I realized the refinery was in space. (This could be because I’ve been intermittently spacing out while reading, rather than a fault in the writing.)

Her writing is good, but, at least in this book, not great and she’s definitely had more than a few choppy scene shifts that were just awkward to read.

I can see where she’s using her world building for political metaphors or to make a point about American politics/society … but it’s just not gripping me or even making me think terribly hard what she’s saying.

Space books aren’t my favorite, anyway, and I think the problem with this book is that to me, nothing is exceptional enough to really grasp my attention.  Everything is okay across the board but there’s nothing about it that’s a major draw to me.

Am I missing something, readers?  Should I go ahead and strive to finish, as it will drastically improve, or do you think that this book and I are, alas, never going to be friends?

The Animorphs

The Moonlight Library blog is doing the most awesome sauce thing. They are rereading and summarizing/reviewing all of the Animorphs series, a sci-fi staple of my childhood. (Well, up until about book 25, when they began to be ghostwritten and, sadly, lost much of their charm for me.)

Ah! I can’t express to you all the fond memories and joy these posts are evoking in me.  I love that someone out in the wide world is doing this and making it available for everyone else.  (My thanks!)  I love discovering things that I missed as a kid or feeling that “fond memory” glow.  (Or, sometimes, laughing at how something I thought was soooo awesooommmmeeee!!!!! was in fact pretty ridiculous.) I’m just in love with this whole business, really.

I remember finding, years ago, a website where someone had done a similar-but more snarky-website with the Sweet Valley High books, another staple of my childhood.

Anyone know of other childhood book series being given a similar treatment? Please, leave a link in the comments!